Page To Screen: I, Claudius

So, I like going to the movies, and I like reading books, and a lot of movies are based on books, so why not read some books that got made into movies?

That’s as good an intro as you’re likely to get right now.  So, let’s get thing rolling with a look at Robert Graves’s novel I, Claudius.

Why this one?

OK, so, the BBC’s adaptation of I, Claudius may not exactly be a high profile or well-remembered sort of TV mini-series, but it is worth noting that back in 1976-78 or so that I, Claudius won or was nominated for a number of TV awards in both Britain and the United States.  It was somewhat in the cultural consciousness when it was new.  Heck, I remembered it (sort of) from a Monsterpiece Theater segment on Sesame Street.

Was that Elmo?  That sure looked like Elmo.  Sounded like someone else, but it looked like Elmo.

Anyhoo, I only saw the actual mini-series about somewhere in the neighborhood of fifteen years ago while I was in grad school.  It was something I opted to see on my own to do some kind of comparison between modern and Renaissance depictions of the Roman Empire.  Or something.  That was my thinking at the time.  Now, it’s actually a damn good mini-series, with an actor whose work I’ve always enjoyed, Derek Jacobi, in the lead role.  He’s a fine actor.  Just don’t ask me what I think of his thoughts on the Authorship Question, and if you don’t know what that is,, well, that would be a distraction from this column so maybe ask me if you can corner me at a dinner party or something.

But beyond Jacobi, this is one impressive cast, with the best known including the likes of Brian Blessed as Augustus, John Hurt as Caligula, and this one guy who, well, see for yourself:

Under that wig is a man who doesn’t age and is always freakin’ awesome.

Now, I did recently rewatch the pilot, and it holds up as an exercise in fine acting more than anything else.  Most scenes are just a few characters talking to each other.  And it really freakin’ works.  I’m gonna look into seeing the rest again.

Now, it should be noted that the mini-series was based off two different novels, I, Claudius and Claudius the God.  I’ve only just finished the first book which ends with Claudius becoming the fourth Emperor of Rome, a position he doesn’t really want.

The book.

I, Claudius is set up as the fictional biography of the fourth Emperor of the Roman Empire.  He narrates the story himself, and what we learn very quickly is that he’s an often dismissed individual, seen as a fool due to a bad stutter, a limp, and deafness in one ear, problems he’s had since birth.  He never really knew his father Germanicus, his mother never loved him that much, and his paternal grandmother Livia never met a problem she couldn’t poison her way out of.  He can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people he’s considered good and true friends who actually accepted that he wasn’t a moron.  Those people, from the looks of things, did not include any of his wives.

Yes, wives.  Marriage and divorce are fairly quick and frequent in this setting.  And given we’re looking at what amounts to the royal family, many of those marriages are political, and many others are predetermined by whoever the Emperor is, and all three of Claudius’ predecessors–Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula–are major characters, and two of them are Claudius’ blood relatives.

As it is, Claudius drops out of his own narrative for long periods, and he explains it away as due to the fact that he isn’t all that important in the grand scheme of things during those moments.  He’s a historian by inclination and preferred to live on a farm outside of Rome except when recalled by various Emperors (most notably his insane nephew Caligula).  This absence works in Claudius’ favor as his main goal is survival when his inherited inner circle includes a number of people who use poison, false charges of capital crimes, and a few people with execution power and delusions of celestial grandeur.  Claudius tends to find himself ignored, great for his own survival, and it’s only the more perceptive or caring people he knows that see what he really is.

But the biggest difference between the video adaptation and Graves’s novel is the action.  Claudius himself isn’t all that exciting due to his physical limitations, but this was a violent era, and the BBC’s budget was clearly not up to depicting large battles or tense escapes from hordes of German barbarians.

But at the heart is Claudius, a man who believes in restoring the Republic, making him a dying breed, and somehow he ends up as Emperor, the last position a person of his beliefs would actually want.  This was a highly readable book that brought an interesting (fictional) take on the early days of the Empire.  I don’t know how historically accurate it was, so maybe I’ll have to look into that next.

9 out of 10 sudden marriages.

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